The government should drop provisions for labor deregulation from its “work style reform” bill and set out to develop systems more in tune with the workplace reality and acceptable for the public.

What the government really needs to do swiftly under its labor reform initiative is to take effective steps to prevent overwork, including the introduction of a legal upper limit on overtime.

At the Diet, opposition parties are attacking the government’s labor deregulation proposal to expand the scope of the so-called “discretionary working system,” under which employees are deemed to have worked the number of hours prescribed by an advance agreement between labor and management regardless of the actual number of hours they have put in.

Struggling to set the stage to pass the bill after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently retracted his remarks concerning data cited to promote the proposal, the government is now considering delaying the implementation of the measure by one year to April 2020.

The Abe administration is also considering a one-year delay in the introduction of the so-called “sophisticated professionals system,” which would exempt employees engaged in certain high-paid specialist jobs from regulations concerning working hours.

This is a typical and outrageous tactic to steer debate from the real issue.

What is being questioned is not the schedule for taking these measures but the government’s rash move to push through such major labor policy changes.

The Diet deliberations on the bill have also revealed errors in part of the data concerning overtime of general workers included in the basic materials for discussions provided to the government’s Labor Policy Council, which was tasked with considering proposed revisions to the law.

Opposition parties have raised doubts about the credibility of arguments made at the council, but the government has insisted that they were not affected by the inaccurate data.

But the way the council reached its conclusions on the deregulation proposals was itself questionable.

While employers ardently lobbied for the expansion of the “discretionary working system” and the introduction of the “sophisticated professionals system,” labor unions remained opposed to these measures to the end, arguing that they could end up promoting long working hours.

The advisory panel, however, ignored the objection from the labor community and concluded that these proposals were “mostly reasonable.”

The council is designed as a forum of discussion on labor issues involving neutral experts as well as representatives of labor and management.

But other advisory panels set up to promote the administration’s policy, such as the council for industrial competitiveness and the council for regulatory reform, had already thrown their weight behind the deregulation proposals before the Labor Policy Council began to consider them.

Abe has withdrawn his remarks that certain data indicated the average working hours among people covered by the discretionary working system are shorter than that of general workers.

But he has also countered the opposition arguments against the proposal that stressed the findings of a survey by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

The survey showed that the average monthly working hours among employees under the system tended to be longer than the average for ordinary workers. Abe has claimed that the comparison is not relevant because the longer working hours among employees working under the system were not due to the change to the system.

To be sure, the survey didn’t try to find a change in working hours due to the shift from ordinary jobs to positions covered by the discretionary working system.

If so, the administration should order a fresh survey to find such a change, if any, and gather more relevant data for debate on the proposals.

Various problems with the discretionary working system have been cited, including cases of applying it to noneligible workers as a means to avoid paying overtime.

The government should reset its labor deregulation initiative by starting with confronting the reality of working conditions. Gradual expansion of the system without careful and fact-based debate on the proposal is unacceptable.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 23